For Phila. prostitutes, a new dawn

Michelle Dargan clutches her graduation certificate for the Project Dawn Court program, supported by coordinator Lesha Sanders (left) and alumna Ann-Marie Jones.
Michelle Dargan clutches her graduation certificate for the Project Dawn Court program, supported by coordinator Lesha Sanders (left) and alumna Ann-Marie Jones. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 11, 2013

It took Michelle Dargan, 52, two decades to find a second chance.

She ran with the wrong crowd in high school, she said. She did speed and drank Thunderbird. Sexual abuse and a son soon followed. Her reliance on drugs and alcohol increased and led her to a life on Kensington Avenue - and quite an arrest record.

Starting in 1989, she was arrested for prostitution 17 times and convicted seven. She hadn't been off probation since, she said, until now.

She's on a new path, thanks to the public defender who referred her last year to Project Dawn Court, an alternative justice and rehabilitation program that aims to address the problems that lead women to and trap them in prostitution.

"The future is so bright for me now," Dargan said Tuesday with her new Project Dawn Court graduation certificate in hand. It took her a year to complete the program, which requires women to participate in substance-abuse and sexual-trauma counseling while staying clean.

She's still "a work in progress," she said, but hopes to use her new confidence and skills to mentor other women who have fallen victim to the same cycle and to write a book about her experiences and the court.

Dargan was one of four to graduate Tuesday, which marked the first anniversary of Project Dawn Court's expansion.

The Philadelphia program, one of a handful of problem-solving courts for prostitutes in the country, began as a pilot in 2010. Seventy percent of the 28 participants graduated.

The full version launched last year with a $250,000 federal grant. It enrolled 51 women, two of whom were terminated. It is court-associated and based on the idea that reducing recidivism requires addressing the underlying problems of sexual trauma and substance abuse that lead women to the streets

"When people see women on the street arrested for prostitution, either they think this is a victimless crime or they think this is about a drug problem. Neither of those is quite true," said Mary DeFusco, director of training and recruitment at the Defender Association of Philadelphia and a public defender at Project Dawn Court.

"Many of our women have suffered sexual trauma as a child, and they engage in acts where they relive the trauma," DeFusco said.

Philadelphia police estimate there are 500 to 600 prostitution-related arrests of women in the city each year. An additional 200 men are arrested.

Participants in Project Dawn Court must have at least one open case and three or more prior counts of prostitution. Nearly all struggle with drug addiction or mental illness.

The program takes at least a year to complete. Graduates have the open case dismissed with prejudice, and if they aren't rearrested for a year, that case is expunged.

A key difference between Project Dawn Court and the traditional justice system is that participants are not treated and stigmatized as criminals. They receive individualized drug and trauma treatment. Each woman sees the same judge, assistant district attorney, and public defender once a month.

"They treat people in the programs as individuals, which might seem like something trivial," said  Corey Shdaimah, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who studies Project Dawn Court and a similar program in Baltimore. "But in my interviews with the participants, it's very different than what they've come to expect in the criminal justice system."

Once out of the program, it's up to the women to find their way because "the courts can't solve all the societal problems," Shdaimah said. But the door is always open to women for help.

"When I looked into the mirror, I used to see nothing," said Ann-Marie Jones, 46, a 2011 graduate of the pilot program. She was sexually abused from the age of 13, then was enmeshed for a decade in drug addiction, prostitution, and the criminal justice system.

She has become an advocate, peer specialist, and mentor at Dawn's Place, a shelter for women trapped in prostitution that partly inspired the court.

"It allowed me to get my life back on track again," Jones said, "and it let me know that I'm a lady."


Contact Curtis Skinner at 215-854-2930 or cskinner@philly.com, or follow him on Twitter @CurtisOrion.

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